17 Cheshvan 5782 / Saturday, October 23, 2021 | Torah Reading: Vayeira
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Choose Happy

All the flashing lights, attractions, and places of entertainment in the big city are designed to make people happy, but those walking down its streets are not smiling...


Yesterday, I jumped on a bus and went for a visit to Tel Aviv. I hadn’t been there for months and months and months, and every year in the winter, when it’s cool enough for me to walk around and travel to that part of the country, I go.

Strange to say, though, that I don’t really like Tel Aviv – it encapsulates a lot of the things from my old life in London that I used to think I couldn’t live without, but now see how bad they were for me.
One of those things is the ‘buzz’ of a big city. When we first moved to Israel, I found most places in Israel way too quiet for me. I’m from London – second only in ‘buzz’ to New York – and initially, I missed the millions of people packed into a relatively small area; the hustle and bustle, the colour, the excitement.
Tel Aviv has a bit of that; it has traffic jams, people ‘speedwalking’ to wherever they so desperately need to get to, bars, cafes, shops, pollution, unfriendliness. All the things that combine to make that big city ‘buzz’...
When we first moved here, I’d feel the need to go to Tel Aviv every month. Gradually, Hashem weaned me off, and now that I live in Gush Etzion, which is miles and miles away from Tel Aviv, I go just once or twice a year, usually by myself, to remind myself why I don’t like it.
The weather yesterday was gorgeous. It had just rained, and more rain was forecast, so all the plants and trees looked green and gorgeous, but when I was walking around, it was bright, cold sunshine. Wonderful...
I stepped off the bus at the Arlozorov station, which is in the more upscale, established, posh part of North Tel Aviv. What a glorious day! Everything looked so beautiful, and I walked down Arlozorov with a song in my heart, and a spring in my step.
And that’s when it hit me: every person I passed on the street looked miserable and stressed. The younger people looked pensive and worried. The older people had their worry and unhappiness etched into the wrinkles on their faces.
I turned left, and walked down Ibn Gvirol street, which is absolutely packed with upscale boutiques, bakeries, cafes and restaurants – all the things that, according to the advertising industry, are meant to make us ‘happy’ and give us a good quality of life.
I looked at the people drinking coffee (and smoking like chimneys); at the people having deep conversations (and smoking like chimneys); at the young mums pushing their designer strollers along the road (and smoking like chimneys); at the shop assistants in all those upscale establishments (a lot of whom were standing outside, smoking like chimneys) – and everyone looked so miserable. Everyone looked so stressed.
Tel Aviv is not known for it’s observance of mitzvahs. Of course, there are many people who work there and even live there, who are observant, but I think it’s fair to say that they don’t really define the character of the city. It’s a modern, thrusting city, where most people set a lot of store by their ‘authentic’ sushi, their ‘authentic’ cocktails, their designer clothes and their Italian coffee.
All the things that are meant to make us ‘happy’.
But I didn’t see many happy people in Tel Aviv yesterday; in fact, I saw just the opposite. And then that got me thinking: if shopping doesn’t truly make a person, what does? If money and a ‘designer’ lifestyle don’t truly make a person happy, what does? If a luxury, newly-renovated flat by one of the best beaches in the world doesn’t truly make a person happy, what does? If you can’t sit in an upscale café with a friend, drinking an expensive cup of coffee, on a beautiful sunny winter day – and be happy – then what’s gone wrong here?
The answer, of course, is that those things don’t really make us happy. Doing what G-d wants makes us happy. Without G-d in your life, you can have all the luxuries and money and great weather in the world, and still be terribly miserable.
I didn’t have the time, money or inclination to sit and have coffee. I didn’t have money to waste in all the expensive shops. I wasn’t in Tel Aviv to meet a friend. I was there to walk around another bit of Eretz HaKodesh, and to thank Hashem while I was doing it.
I was incredibly happy yesterday.
Earlier on in my process of teshuva, my yetzer hara would goad me about all the ‘good’ things I was missing out on, being strapped for cash in Eretz Yisrael. It would remind me that now, I couldn’t just buy the clothes that I wanted. Now, I couldn’t order in fish and chips once a week, or go to Starbucks and waste £30 on a round of drinks and crips. I couldn’t meet friends in town, and have an expensive meal out.
Thankfully, as my emuna increased and my soul got more of a say in my life, I came to see just how empty and meaningless nearly all of those ‘good’ things were. And I also started to see the ‘hidden’ cost of those ‘good’ things; that I was never grateful for what I had; that I always had my eyes on the ‘next’ good thing; that I used to waste so much of my time and money, and talk so much loshon hara, on those nights out. These ‘good’ things always left me feeling strangely empty, and wondering why I wasn’t feeling as happy, healthy and shiny as the ad men promised me I would be, if I bought their product.
I probably used to sit in Starbucks, with my expensive cup of tea, looking as miserable and stressed – and expensively dressed – as all the people I saw yesterday.
Sometimes, it can be hard to cling to Hashem and His commandments. Sometimes, it can feel as though we are really missing out on a whole lot of fun and happiness, by trying to do what Hashem wants us to do. Movies are so much fun! Meals out with friends are so much fun! Holidays by the beach are so much fun!
But Hashem showed me yesterday that a person can do all these ‘fun’ things, and buy all the ‘right’ things, and dress the ‘right’ way, and live in the ‘right’ place – and if they are doing it all without Hashem, their misery will be so clearly etched into their faces that a complete stranger can pick up on it a mile away.
This world is a minefield; our yetzer haras can make it seem that choosing a lifestyle where we dress modestly, eat kosher and keep mitzvahs is a terrible, onerous burden. But yesterday showed me that shops, sun and money don’t make a person happy; only G-d does.

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